I live in Cambridge now, with a great chunk of country between where I am and where I'm from. I'm in a part of the country where (let them tell the story) History was invented, where the lore of revolutionaries constructing a new freedom from England looms large, and the hooves of Paul Revere's horse are louder in our national memory than Crispus Attucks' death rattle. What's a slave's memory in comparison? What's there to say about the tin-like ping of a Blues theology in the ear of a heaven that gave the pen to the torturer? Who am I, this modern person and bodied Black, a descendant, grandchild of a Great Migration with Chicago in her step and Mississippi pooled in the corners of her mouth like warm milk - who is she to say that her ancestors were hoodwinked, bamboozled - that weighing time had come yet again...and though they'd picked, and ached, were found wanting? Who am I to claim that they were insufficient in their push, lackluster in their slouch toward some kind of justice, that they were naive to assert to an unjust nation that justice was not only its moral mandate but its birthright? Who am I to say that they were wrong to march, and boycott, and push back the plate when hunger (and hunger, and hunger) weren't threats...but promises served up with a smile?
So, I remind myself that I can walk on the sidewalk. I gently silence the privileged party in me who forgot that she can drink out of any water fountain she chooses, that forgot she chose the high school she went to. You know, the one that forgot that people fled the South in droves, six million over sixty years, spurred by world wars and manufacturing jobs in Detroit and Chicago that provided a lil' space from Mister Charlie only to have them rub elbows with Poles and Germans finding their own America. The one that forgot about the people that crammed their culture into hatboxes, fingering the frayed edges of the promise of a kinder mistress as they traveled north (with Jazz, Blues, and Gospel in tow)?
How can I fix my mouth to say anything but "The lie of our inhumane treatment is old, but the truth of our humanity and right to walk the earth and flourish is older?"
How can I say anything but "It was a hard row to hoe, forging a grave freedom in a nation that suckled at your breast and grew strong on sociopathy - but you were right", "Thank you for holding a vicious nation to a standard of virtue inconceivable to anyone but us". "Thank you for creating and passing down language for our humanity so we could stand living in a country whose tongue is decidedly stuck in a vise grip of hateful language."
See, this is where this post got damned up - somewhere between a tongue set on fire by cultural memory and an inheritance that lets me navigate the world with looser limbs in life than white folks of old could deign to bid them in death.
...but I'll honor that work, that insistence on (re)bending the arc of the moral universe because what we have is not good enough.
I'll honor it because when the nation needs a reminder, we'll need people with cultural memory to tell the story, because a culture that's all History and no memory is an amnesiac fool. We need people to hear in our country's pomp and circumstance the shackled limbs and bridled tongues of the illiterate, and in the percussion of its star-spangled marches the sound of snapped necks set to music...lest we forget ourselves. It's not our job to stop being crushed by the cogs of this country's engine. We need our nation to admit that while the current state of affairs is old, while it's cut thick and intentionally from cloth that both detests Black people and has always needed us to function...it'll start asking the questions necessary to cease using us for fodder.
To be Black is to be fully human and fully deserving; fully due its equal measure of peace. But consider how privilege diminishes humanity - how it hardens the heart, makes one doubt the testimony of someone intimately familiar with other undersides of History. Consider how it weighs on a soul, how it impairs, renders one without compassion or an ability to envision anything beyond the scope of what makes one comfortable. Is it possible, is there a chance that Black America, after centuries, has the authoritative language for the consequences tethered to how its citizens are bodied and how we experience the world?
One of the most heinous lies Black America was ever told was that we were a people without history, that we don't come from anything, that coming to the States was our saving grace (how sweet but discordant the Transatlantic sound). That's the lie people use to claim our cultural memory is the stuff of madmen's imaginations. But know that Black suffering is matched and surpassed only by Black joy and the sight-beyond-sight that makes us relentless in our reach for something better...and our ability to render it into dance, reverie, and language. The spark that gets us from glory to glory is what got us from the hollows of ships to where we are today...and it hasn't dimmed because we're on the other side of the Migration.
History's bared its teeth and come for us again, but we hold fast to the truth of our humanity, to the knowledge that we aren't the first generation to endure, and to the promise that we can (and are called to) engineer a better society than this.